The damning statistics surged in: Manchester United’s largest margin of defeat against Liverpool at home in history, the first time they let in five or more goals at Old Trafford without scoring themselves since February 1955 under Matt Busby, the most errors leading to shots in the Premier League, having conceded only less than Watford, Leeds, Newcastle and Norwich in the division.
Those data daggers still didn’t tell the complete tale of United’s 5-0 death by ineptness. The lengthy “Ole’s at the wheel” chant from the away end, doused in irony and delight, did some work in underscoring the joke of the performance offered at Old Trafford on Sunday evening.
But perhaps the most damaging thing to say about the club is that the man who should never have been in permanent charge only remains in situ because they don’t know what to do or how to do it. And that is not on the manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer achieved what you’d want from a caretaker – and then some. He brought light and life to a miserable wreck, with his good intentions and desire to return United to the grand state he knew as their player.
The Norwegian did not have the elite-level tools to be successful in such a significant dugout but got the job and a new contract anyway. Rivals were bemused but thoroughly happy. Mauricio Pochettino was on the table, even as soon as this month a year ago, but the club swerved their initial plan to bring him in and banked on blind faith.
Rivals were even more bemused and even happier.
Solskjaer’s limitations are exposed on a weekly basis, almost cruel when juxtaposed against the strengths of his counterparts Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel.
It feels callous to keep pointing out the obvious - that he doesn’t possess the credentials to be in high-level management, not least at the self-marketed biggest club in the world, but we continuously arrive at this juncture on account of United not having adequate brainpower behind the scenes.
They do not possess the surety and clarity of Liverpool and Manchester City in football operations, which is how their wastage swells, now evidenced by spending two years trying to recruit Jadon Sancho without a clue on how to use him after paying £73 million.
United’s major upturn under Solskjaer was built on the transformative presence of Bruno Fernandes and then married with the work ethic of Edinson Cavani, the former a shell of himself to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo and the latter largely unused for the same reason.
There was no plan to sign the Portugal megastar, aligned with active briefings against such a move until it became apparent that he was joining City. United could not allow that to happen, partly for Ronaldo’s world-class attributes, partly for his golden history with them and partly because they feared the fan reaction if he ended up at the neighbours.
How his presence – beyond experience, guaranteeing goals and swerving dessert – would affect strategy in and out of possession or the careers of the attackers around him was not calculated.
United have been praised for being better at recruitment in the Solskjaer era, but if we’re being honest, none of the incomings were a masterstroke of scouting or excellent long-term planning. It has been a result of their financial might and traditional status.
Even the greatest success, the Fernandes deal, could have materialised in the summer of 2019 but the club rubbished interest in him. Fast forward to the end of the following January window and they were frantically jostling with Barcelona to land the attacker.
Solskjaer’s tenure can be sliced into Before Bruno and After Bruno: imagine if United had got him sooner? Imagine if they continued to build around him rather than shirt sales and a hankering for the past?
Donny van de Beek, meanwhile, has been rendered a figment of our imagination. United had first started working towards a director of football in August 2018, but just promoted John Murtough to the role in March this year while adding Darren Fletcher as technical director.
Matt Judge became head of football negotiations in a process that was more about changing job titles than revolutionising the structure.
Ed Woodward, who steps down as executive vice-chairman at the end of 2021, leaves with a legacy of failure.
United, at least, have finally realised the importance of investing into a bespoke analytics unit.
They, better late than never, appointed a director of data science in Dominic Jordan and leading figures in the field are waiting to see whether his findings will be backed or the move is a “look, we’re doing it too” show.
United cannot compete with Liverpool and City on the pitch because they are worlds apart off it too.
The focus on Solskjaer’s unsuitability at the helm has detracted from that reality, but it should make it piercingly obvious.
What other powerhouse would go along for the ride of being bullied by Crystal Palace, eviscerated 6-1 by Spurs in Jose Mourinho’s return to Old Trafford, then beating Paris Saint-Germain away and smashing five past RB Leipzig only to suffer embarrassment against Istanbul Basaksehir before losing to Arsenal?
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What other powerhouse would be motionless after a 5-0 mauling at the hands of their greatest rivals, who didn’t need to catch fire?
What other powerhouse would look at the evidence of this season, at the spin cycle of the past three years, and still “trust the process”?
Has anyone ever explained what it is beyond the nostalgia-dripped “United Way”?
It has been time for Solskjaer to go, but he didn’t appoint himself nor draw up that new three-year contract.
What other football powerhouse would’ve done that? And so United stick. Twisting is very scary when you do not have a concrete operation and direction to carry it out.
Can you trust United to make smart decisions? Having an elite manager – the right fit – with a proven long-term blueprint does make a difference: in terms of the targets you can attract, reshaping the image of the club, giving greater belief to players, staff, and supporters. It can be transformative.
But being successful stretches beyond the face in the dugout. The people tasked with hiring a game-changer for United and giving him the platform to triumph must be s**t-hot.
So far, the evidence suggests they’re only the bit that precedes the hyphen. The fear and uncertainty over what happens next speaks to that.
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